An Everyday Occurrence

I watched a dam break on the Metro yesterday. There was a man—black jacket, travel suitcase, knit cap to ward off the first truly cold day of the autumn. He was controlled, rational, nonthreatening. He wasn’t crazy, but suddenly, he broke. I watched the meticulously constructed and maintained dam that was holding back a flood of pain suddenly crack. Suddenly he was shouting at everyone in the subway car, and it was jarring, at 8:30 a.m. on a Friday.

Not everything he said made sense, and some of it was frightening. He talked about understanding our country’s history, being fearful of pie-in-the-sky socialists and, most concerningly, “taking up arms.” He was paranoid and angry, disparaging the government and his neighbors who had their “eyes wide shut.” He assured us that women—black and white—had the most to fear. That we were targets. Clarity was not his strong point, nor brevity. Then, out of the confusion and this harsh awakening on our collective morning commute, his purpose, the root of all this, crystallized: “Thousand Oaks! This can’t happen anymore. This is just going to keep happening. Thousand Oaks!”

I felt a rush of empathy. I was furious, all of the sudden, with everyone else on that train, myself included, whose heads were down. People were huddled over their cell phones, scrolling, avoiding eye contact with this man or with each other. He was interrupting their morning, speaking at a volume and about a topic impossible to ignore, and yet—they were ignoring him. Acting as if this happened every morning on the Metro—just another screaming man with a black suitcase and a knit cap.

I didn’t say anything—I couldn’t, I was just as frozen in my seat as everyone else. And I was, if I’m honest, fairly certain that this man who kept urging us all to “take up arms” to keep ourselves safe had probably brought a gun on the train. I was still scared. But this shocking disruption of the podcast plugged in my ears no longer seemed crazy or violent—it seemed desperate, and the desperation was so familiar. I thought back to earlier that morning, when I had clicked off the alarm on my phone to see the very first push alert on the screen— the same mass-shooting this stranger was evoking: 12 dead in California, maybe more, dozens injured. It was at a bar. It was College Night. Motive unknown.

I remember not even being surprised—remember how I processed the news so quickly, just as I would have an alert about the stock market or the weather. It was not always predictable, but it was commonplace. Sometimes it would rain. Sometimes the Dow would plummet. Sometimes 12 people would be murdered on a weekday, while country music blared in the background. And I remember thinking that I wish there was something I could do to halt this mass, collective accumulation of pain—but I couldn’t. It was hopeless. There was nothing to do but grieve and hope that I—or someone I love—wasn’t next, while we picked out produce, while we drank coffee, while we watched a movie. And I thought about how unfair that was—that there were solutions, but that they were so inaccessible to us. That no one seemed to be listening to our desperate pleas for reform. That nothing seemed to be getting better, and that internalizing all this pain was becoming too heavy a burden. That no one should be asked to feel this, that I needed an outlet, a voice for this desperation.

And then, at 8:30 a.m. on an east-bound Metro train, I found that voice. This man—maybe he was misguided, but I heard in his voice my own madness verbalized. I heard in his tone the same tone my dad adopted during our weekly phone calls—disbelief, indignation, urgency. This wasn’t right. This wasn’t the world we should live in. We knew that. But god, what could we do? In at least one way, this man on the train was right: we were all sleeping. We all were numb to this cycle of violence; it was so easy to ignore, to file away, to write off as a lost cause. Our eyes glazed over at the news the same way they did at him—it was more convenient, and less agonizing, not to listen and not to feel. He was right—nothing was making an impact anymore, and none of our efforts to curtail the violence were working. There was, it seemed, nothing to do, nothing that would strike a cord. None of the traditional methods—think pieces, op-eds, data, rigorous journalism, public debates, protests—were effective. Nothing would work, but he still did something, and he did something new. He yelled at us on a train.

And I think it was brave—in the face of defeat, in the face of public humiliation and ignorance, he still tried. He found a way to make his pain material and then share it with all of us—against our will, uncomfortably, in a train car. But I watched his dam break and somehow, it healed me. Because I realized that this fight isn’t over. There are still people fighting.